Tyndareos’ wager, the Trojan war — and Rawls’ veil

How do you marry off the most beautiful woman in the world? King Tyndáreos, stepfather to Helen — of Trojan fame — was at a loss. How could he not offend the many suitors of Helen? There was Ajax and Odysseús, Menestheús and Menélaos and many more, each bearing gifts and seeking her hand in matrimony. There was talk of murder in the air among those inevitably to be rejected. But Odysseus made a deal: if Tyndareos was to help him woo and win Penelópe, he would provide the king with a solution to the suitors’ game…

So before giving away Helen, Tyndareos made all of the suitors swear solemnly to defend whoever was chosen against anyone who would challenge the husband. Menelaos came out on top. Until Paris came to Sparta — the oath was called and the Greeks set sail for Troy.

Doesn’t Tyndareos’ stratagem remind of John Rawls’ idea of justice as fairness? Rawls argued that his principles of justice — our equal rights to basic liberties, equal opportunity to obtain “offices and positions”, or the requirement that any inequality ought to benefit the worst-off in society — would have been the natural outcome of a Gedankenexperiment in which we all had to decide on which type of society we want while each of us was unaware of our different personal characteristics and where we would ourselves end up — a slave or a plantation owner — after we had designed society.

The social contract is a commitment device – or vice versa.

Mathematicians do it better

I do not know then in what manner
questions that only minimally regard mathematics
are solved more quickly by mathematicians than by others.

- Leonhard Euler

King’s mountain

A besieged Gdańsk. More than four months now Stanisław Leszczyński has been waiting in vain for relief to arrive from his son-in-law, Louis XV of France. → Read More

The LIE of science

When discussing science, we typically distinguish between theory and practice. William Feller, in the introduction to his monumental An introduction to probability theory and its applications [sic], enlarges this dichotomy to an interdependent triangle: the formal Logical content, the Intuitive background and the applications or physical Experience – the LIE of any scientific discipline. A similar reasoning shimmers through the first lines of that other monument, Richard Courant’s What is mathematics? “Mathematics as an expression of the human mind reflects the active will, the contemplative reason, and the desire for aesthetic perfection.” → Read More

One, two, three cultures and counting

Is it dangerous to an individual or to society that a void has opened among the various types of knowledge, of culture? Has it diminished our (individual and combined) capacity to “produce future”? Does it make us less humanior? Less universal? → Read More

Confirmation and falsification

Understanding is reducing. Consolidating the number of categories of entities, unifying laws of motion and attraction, generalising concepts of reasoning. Constructing theories and schemes and ideologies.

The tendency then is almost unescapable to try and integrate everything we come across in the same, pre-existing narrative. We easily succumb to confirmation bias.

Of course, we know we ought to act the other way around. Consider our world view as the hypothesis we aim to reject. Falsify what we hold dear, rather than gather evidence for it. That means we must foremost value each and every particularity in itself, and not bestow the primacy on theory. It means we need to rethink Thomas Sowell:

Facts do not speak for themselves. They speak for or against competing theories. Facts divorced from theories or visions are mere isolated curiosities.

The praxis of particularities is a treasure trove out of which wisdom can be gleaned.


Leeswijzer [Goethe]

Die Duitsers toch, verwonderde Goethe zich: altijd op zoek naar diepe gedachten en abstracte ideeën in mijn werk! Ze maken zich het leven moeilijker dan nodig. Heb toch de moed om je aan je indrukken over te geven, je te laten verblijden [ergötzen] en ontroeren. De lezer die genietend oordeelt, en oordelend geniet; die recreëert eigenlijk een kunstwerk opnieuw.

Veel van onze belevenissen laten zich niet rechtstreeks meedelen. Maar door de levenden een spiegel voor te houden, openbaart zich toch de zin aan wie opmerkzaam is. Eigen je de “psychisch-zedelijk-esthetische” vraagstukken toe die ik vrijgevig in mijn werk rondstrooi, en helder daardoor de raadsels uit jouw leven op. Wat daarbij duister schijnt, prikkelt de mensen, zoals alle onoplosbare problemen.

Wie al iets ongedaan heeft en het één en het ander meegemaakt, die zal er meer in vinden dan ik geven kon.

Immanuel Kants kategorische imperatief

Wat was de vraag waarvan u vertrok?

I.K. Waarom gehoorzamen mensen aan morele wetten? Waarom zijn ze überhaupt in moraliteit geïnteresseerd?

Is dat niet eerder voer voor psychologen dan voor filosofen?

I.K. De psychologie, de praktische antropologie, de zedenleer gaat over het doen en laten van de mens en het moeilijke streven naar geluk. Een handleiding om gelukkig te worden bestaat niet, of hoogstens uit raadgevingen van ervaringsdeskundigen. Geluk is geen ideaal van het verstand maar van de verbeeldingskracht. → Read More

The greatest invention of them all

Man in his natural state, lives for himself. He does not relate to anyone else. Natural man has no regard for  others or for what others may think of him. Inequality has no meaning. Neither has good or evil, justice, private property, society or selfishness. Generations succeed one another in vain. The species grows old while man is still a child.

Such a state arguably never occurred. We adapt. For better or for worse we evolve, out of the natural state. The idea dawns on us that, on rare occasions, we may benefit from collusion. During a stag hunt each keeps his watch. Until someone catches sight of a hare passing by and the common cause is lost. Do as you like, with as little harm as possible to others. It would take a million years to turn this useful maxim into the “reasonable” rule – do as you would be done by.

Then mankind takes its giant leap. → Read More

Preis und Würde

Im Reiche der Zwecke hat alles entweder einen Preis, oder eine Würde. Was einen Preis hat, an dessen Stelle kann auch etwas anderes als Äquivalent gesetzt werden; was dagegen über allen Preis erhaben ist, mithin kein Äquivalent verstattet, das hat eine Würde. → Read More

Michael Broadbent’s “Ten most important things”

Ten most important things I have learned and can pass on.

  1. People are more important than organisations
  2. Visit as many wine regions as possible – better a fleeting visit than none at all. It acts as an aide-mémoire
  3. Drink good wine with every meal. Half a bottle of good wine is more interesting – and better for you – than six bottles of plonk
  4. Spot opportunities and have the courage to act on them
  5. Start a tasting book and make notes
  6. If you do not know the answer to the question, admit it
  7. In wine, understanding is superior to pedantic knowledge
  8. Read the classics on wine and keep up to date
  9. Be honest and rely on your own tasting; avoid the influence of others
  10. Teaching is the best way to learn